TIFF REVIEW – ‘Joker’ is a divisive, turbulent, and maddening work

An origin story of Batman’s greatest foe was something no one ever really asked for. Much like Disney’s ill-fated attempt to flesh out the backstory of one of its greatest villains in Maleficent, the Joker is a character whose mystery is part of his endless charm. He’s a character we can never fully understand. Nor should we seek to. So seemingly indiscriminate in his chaos, his brand of evil was perfectly summarised by Michael Caine’s Alfred in The Dark Knight when he theorised, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

In a climate of tentpole filmmaking, many will assume writer/director Todd Phillips‘ bold and unsettling Joker is nothing more than a shameless cash grab under the guise of an origin tale. But if you’re expecting the film to be filled with franchise-baiting references and sequel opportunities, you’ll be surprisingly mistaken. Yes, Joker takes place in Gotham City. And, yes, the fabled Wayne family are omnipresent. But these DC-referential details are ultimately superfluous to what’s at the heart of this daring and somewhat muddled work.

While Joker does provide a detailed roadmap to the specifics of how Gotham’s supervillain was born, it’s difficult to determine whether anything here really bolsters the motivation of his villainous behaviour other than the manifestations of his mental illness; something we were already keenly aware of.

In every incarnation, the Joker is a wildly disturbed and dangerously deranged character. He’s clearly not mentally sound. We knew that already. Are the specifics of his madness truly that important? Ultimately, that will be up for the viewer to decide.

There’s no doubt Joker will be a divisive film. And this film critic is still grappling with whether to call it a masterpiece or a mess. Maybe it’s neither. Maybe it’s both. It’s a film that will leave you numb, that’s for sure. Regardless, it stands as a vehicle for its star to showcase his formidable talent.

In a committed performance for the ages, Joaquin Phoenix is astonishingly impressive, completely disappearing into the role that nabbed the late Heath Ledger an Oscar and could very well do the same for Phoenix. Both an extension and a reinvention of the well-known character, Phoenix offers an unsettling depiction of the villain you won’t soon forget.

Set during the early 1980s, all is not well (is it ever?) in Gotham City. In the grips of a strike by the city’s sanitation workers, the streets of Gotham are overrun with rotting garbage, giving birth to a new strain of “super rats.” Add in an economic downturn that’s causing local businesses to close and unemployment to boom and you’ve got a city on the edge of anarchy, just waiting for someone to light the fuse.

Balancing on the edge of a breakdown, Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is a clown-for-hire and wannabe stand-up comedian who suffers from a neurological disorder which causes him to burst into random bouts of uncontrollable laughter, usually at the worst possible time. To combat the public’s confusion when these moments occur, Arthur carries a laminated card, reading “Forgive my laughter. I have a condition.”

Living with his sickly mother, Penny (Frances Conroy) in their dreary apartment, the pair religiously watch a late-night talk show hosted by legendary comedian Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), which Arthur daydreams he’ll someday be invited to appear on. From an early age, Penny nicknamed her beloved son “Happy,” naively prophesizing one day he’ll “spread joy and laughter” to the world. If only she knew what lay ahead.

But the world doesn’t seem to care for Arthur the way his mother does. While working as a sign-twirling spruiker outside a store on the verge of closing down, Arthur is jumped by a gang of teens who take off with his sign. After Arthur gives chase and confronts the hoodlums in an alley, they beat him senselessly. When one of his co-workers hears of the incident, he provides Arthur with a gun for protection, which he foolishly brings to a gig at a children’s hospital, causing him to lose his job.

After spending time in a mental institution, Arthur regularly visits a social worker, who feigns interest in his beleaguered life but ultimately is merely there to keep him in supply of a series of psychotropic drugs. When funding for the program is cut, Arthur goes off his meds and begins to lose his last semblance of sanity. When a violent incident on a subway train inadvertently causes a mob uprising of Gotham’s lower-class citizens, Arthur finally feels like he’s found his purpose as their pseudo leader.

In all honesty, Phillips could have removed any connection to the DC world, called this film Clown, and it would still work as effectively. For all its connection to a larger narrative world, Joker is a standalone piece that ultimately seeks to portray one man’s descent into absolute madness. Sure, that man eventually progresses to become someone who battles against Gotham’s heroic vigilante crimefighter. But in this film, he’s just a clown with a gun. For now.

This may sound strange, but the film is ultimately a journey into insanity you can’t help feeling you almost shouldn’t be watching. You will leave this film with a knot in your stomach and that’s likely entirely what Phillips wants. Joker is an unflinching and uncomfortable portrayal of mental illness some may call exploitative and others may deem entirely essential. Where the lines get blurred is the inference Arthur’s mental instability, coupled with his dismal treatment by society, is what consequently births a villain, almost to suggest his violence and vengeance are entirely valid reactions.

That’s not to suggest the violence is played for entertainment. It’s brutal and graphic, earning every inch of its much-publicised R-rating. The sight of Arthur’s face splashed with crimson red blood across his white clown makeup is both striking and disturbing. For those more accustomed to typical comic book adaptations that downplay the violence, Joker will either feel like a breath of fresh air or simply too much. It’s far from an excessively violent film. But when the deaths occur, they’re meant to shock an audience.

There are already fears Joker will inspire some sort of incel uprising and a whole wave of lone-wolf copycats could be on the horizon. Or that it’s somehow a call to arms for those who identify with Arthur. There is some validity in these concerns, but this reaction seems rather extreme. If we start demonising one piece of fictional cinema as the potential cause of violence in the world, every film, television show, comic book, and video game will suddenly be fair game. The current U.S. administration is already pointing the finger of blame at pop culture for the current spate of mass shootings. Do we really need to give them more fuel for the fire?

But it is jarringly inescapable how uncomfortable the timing of the release of Joker ultimately may be. It seems every few months (or weeks) we’re hearing about a lone psychopath picking up a gun and mowing down as many people as they can. Is it really the right time for a film like this? Maybe the answer is actually yes. As muddily presented as its message may be, Joker appears to be highlighting the damage that can occur when we ignore the plight of someone gripped with mental illness.

The system lets Arthur down. Society either turns its back on him or mocks him right to his face. No one really sees him until he enacts violence upon them. That sounds achingly similar to the motivations behind the mass murderers we hear about on the news. Despite Joker being set in the past, a character like Arthur and the actions of such a madman feel eerily familiar right now. This is a film born from 2019 culture. Read into that what you will.

Whether Joker is trying to say something profound or say nothing at all, you cannot deny it features a startling and spectacular performance from Phoenix. Inhabiting the role as earnestly as Ledger but with his own determined and outrageous spin, Phoenix is simply stunning. It’s a wildly nuanced performance with so many layers for Phoenix to unfurl. As Arthur takes control of his destiny, Phoenix drives the character from whimpering victim to dangerous aggressor with deft skill.

But it’s the physicality of his work that’s equally as impressive as his emotional efforts. Arthur is shockingly emaciated and frail (you’ll beg for him to put his shirt back on) which just makes the character that much more unsettling to behold. When Arthur’s illness causes him to laugh uncontrollably, Phoenix delivers these moments as a combination of both chuckles and cries, leading to an unexpected wave of sympathy to be elicited from an audience. Before his murderous actions (particularly one that’s horribly cruel), you cannot help but feel some empathy for Arthur, which is a testament to Phoenix’s incredible work.

In a visual sense, Joker invokes the early work of Martin Scorsese, especially Taxi Driver. Frankly, you almost expect Travis Bickle to drive past in his cab at any moment. Call it homage or rip-off, Phillips is clearly a big Scorsese fan. With spectacular production design from Mark Friedberg, Gotham City feels more like the down and dirty New York City in the late 70s/early 80s with its neon-drenched streets and graffiti-covered subway cars. It’s an aesthetic that echoes the Gotham of the future found in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, even if we’re still being led to believe the films are not connected.

It’s been days since my screening and it’s still tough to pinpoint if Joker is a glorious success or a calamitous failure. Perhaps repeat viewings will make the picture clearer. While it reaches to dark and gritty depths we haven’t seen in a DC comic book adaptation for years, it’s handled rather clumsily by Phillips whose heavyhanded approach sometimes feels too desperate. This film is trying so achingly hard to be something different, and that has to be admired. But it’s trying just as hard to be something important and the success of that aim remains unclear.

At the end of the day, Joker is a turbulent and maddening work that’s already creating the toxic fan discourse we’ve come to expect in 2019. And that’s probably precisely how someone like the Joker would want it. Let the chaos begin.

Distributor: Roadshow
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Glenn Fleshler, Leigh Gill, Douglas Hodge, Josh Pais, Marc Maron, Sharon Washington, Brian Tyree Henry
Director: Todd Phillips
Producers: Todd Phillips, Bradley Cooper, Emma Tillinger Koskoff
Screenplay: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
Cinematography: Lawrence Sher
Production Design: Mark Friedberg
Music: Hildur Gudnadóttir

Editing: Jeff Groth
Running Time: 121 minutes
Release Date: 3rd October 2019 (Australia)